Family Lore and the Great Kanto Earthquake

Great Kanto Earthquake
Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake

A version of the short essay that follows was originally published at my friend Marc Brush’s wonderful but now defunct online lit mag Wandering Army.

I have some mixed feelings about reviving the piece barely a month after the devastating March 11 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. But I keep seeing references to the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and only a few of these references make mention of the story that I’m going to tell here.

I’ve seen nothing to suggest that there’s been any persecution of minority groups in Japan following this latest disaster. But organized atrocities masquerading as mass hysteria continue to occur around the globe.

And I’ll admit: I have wondered how foreigners in the hardest-hit regions in Japan have fared since March 11. Not Western foreigners so much, who are often accorded a weird special status, but others, especially other Asians. I’ve seen no reporting on that. Hopefully that’s because there’s nothing untoward to report.


Kimi Kawabata in 1924
my grandmother in 1924

Five Syllables

On September 1st, 1923, a powerful earthquake struck Tokyo. My grandmother, Kimi Kawabata, was twelve years old. Terrified by the shaking, she ran out of her house in the upscale Shibuya district and into the street. The Great Kanto Earthquake, as it came to be called, measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, felling houses into splinters, buckling streets, rending water mains. But the Kawabata house in Shibuya was lucky. It was still standing when the tremors subsided.

The quake struck at 11:58 a.m. Within minutes, lunchtime fires had become unstoppable conflagrations. The area would burn for two days. Over a million people lost their homes. 140,000 died. But the Kawabatas’ luck held. Their house did not burn down. They all survived.

Family lore has it that on the day of the earthquake the Kawabatas were expecting out-of-town relatives. They were from Kagoshima, the Kawabatas’ ancestral home, a city about 600 miles southwest of Tokyo. Kagoshima was and is well-known for a number of things—for Sakurajima, the very active volcano poised over the city and its bay; for Saigo Takamori, the real “last samurai,” a leader of the ill-fated Satsuma Rebellion; and for being home to Kagoshima-ben, a dialect notorious for being difficult to understand. I don’t know how close the Kagoshima relatives got to the devastation of Tokyo before their train stopped. Close enough that they did not turn around.


Disasters breed disease, confusion, rumors, mobs. Afterward people say: It was a chaotic time. People were afraid. As if this confers absolution. But atrocities are rarely grassroots events. The history of the last century is littered with instances of so-called mob violence that were in truth incited and abetted by the authorities. Think Kristallnacht. Think Rwandan genocide. In the days following the Great Kanto Earthquake, the Japanese government fomented rumors that resident Koreans, Chinese, and political radicals were looting, setting fires, and poisoning wells. Newspapers reported this as fact. The military, police, and civilian self-defense groups were authorized to take any action they deemed necessary to maintain order.

Ito Noe
Ito Noe

For days people were rounded up, murdered by their neighbors, herded into trucks, dumped into rivers, and killed at police stations where they’d fled for protection. Six thousand Korean men, women, and children died in the massacre, as well as hundreds of Chinese laborers, and scores of known anarchists. Among the latter were Ito Noe, age 28, mother of seven children, an important early feminist who had published Emma Goldman in Japanese. Also killed were her lover, the anarchist firebrand Osugi Sakae, and Osugi’s seven-year-old nephew. They were strangled by the military police, their bodies dumped in a well.


Someone once said that a language is just a dialect with an army. The relatives from Kagoshima somehow made it to Tokyo that week, but were stopped at a checkpoint. Their Japanese sounded funny. Are you Korean? they were asked. No, they said. Prove it, the guards told them. Say ra ri ru re ro.

Ra ri ru re ro. It doesn’t mean anything.

The Japanese syllabary consists of 51 syllables that, separately and in combination, account for every sound it is possible to make in Japanese. It begins with the vowels: a i u e o. The next line is ka ki ku ke ko. And on it goes in its sing-songy way, each line adding a consonant, until one gets to this line, the killer line: ra ri ru re ro. The conventional romanization renders this consonant as an “r”, but it’s some hybrid of  “r” and “l” and “d” and yet not that either. Few non-native speakers can really pronounce it correctly. But all native speakers of Japanese, regardless of provincial dialect, can make this sound. Even speakers of Kagoshima-ben can say ra ri ru re ro.

The relatives from Kagoshima passed the test; they were allowed safe passage to Shibuya. They’d been saved by five syllables.


The word “shibboleth” originates from one of the most savage stories in the book of Judges, and that is saying something. The Ephraimites, trying to retreat over the Jordan River after a defeat at the hands of the Gileadites, were stopped at the ford and made to say shibboleth. If they pronounced it sibboleth, they were taken for Ephraimites and killed. Judges 12:6 coolly reports that forty-two thousand Ephraimites died.

I’ve since read that the shibboleth after the Great Kanto Earthquake wasn’t ra ri ru re ro, but ga gi gu ge go — that hard “g” sound apparently one that Koreans can’t clearly distinguish.

That may be, but the story I grew up hearing from my parents was about ra ri ru re ro.  Nothing was said of Koreans or massacres. The story concerned a checkpoint and relatives with funny accents, a comical anecdote about the impossible Kagoshima dialect.


My sister and I are half Japanese. We lived in Japan until she was four and I nearly six, when we moved to the United States.  In the faithless and adaptable way of children, we promptly forgot our Japanese in our rush to become Americans. We put on the English language like a set of new clothes. It was that easy. But we never forgot how to say ra ri ru re ro.

I have two children of my own now. They don’t look Japanese at all. But my sister calls me and says, Do you speak to them in Japanese? Can they say it? Make sure they can say ra ri ru re ro.

24 thoughts on “Family Lore and the Great Kanto Earthquake

  1. Hi Naomi. What an awesome piece of family lore to pass on to your children and to share with others, not only as an interesting story, but also as a lesson. What sticks in my mind about the reports I heard on CNN about the aftermath of the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan is that there was no rioting and looting to speak of–so unlike the stories in other countries–including our own–after natural disasters. It made a big and lasting impression on me.

  2. Thanks for reading, Margaret. Those reports made an impression on me too. (I’ve always said that if I have to be in a really big earthquake at some point, let it be in Japan.) But Japan, like everyone else, has its darker historical chapters.

  3. It was wonderful to read this essay, Naomi, and to remember how moved I was by it originally. I’m so glad you decided to pick it up again at this moment in time. So beautiful.

  4. Thank you for sharing this provocative story, Naomi. Although I think I would enjoy reading anything that you write, I found this piece particularly interesting, having recently experienced the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami vicariously, through my 20 year old son, who was in Sendai when they hit. Although an obvious gaijin (his face can’t say “ra ri ru re ro,” even if his mouth can), Nick reports nothing but a kind, compassionate melding of means and hearts, as survivors of all ilk band together in the disaster’s terrible aftermath. I’m told that feelings in the region remain akin to those of the post 9-11 U.S., when people temporarily forgot about magnifying differences, to rise, as fellow human beings, in a higher cause. I’m so impressed with the civility and humanity of the Japanese people, in this crisis, and can’t help but wonder about how they have achieved and are sustaining it, given their less-than-stellar historical record in such matters – and the current dearth of true political or commercial leadership. Perhaps there’s a recipe in there for the rest of us. Would love to see another essay. . . 🙂

  5. David, thanks for your incredibly thoughtful response, and I’m so glad your son is safe. It’s also great to hear some almost-firsthand testimony that people in Japan today are really pulling together.

  6. Hi Naomi, firstly, thank you for your post. I found it while Googling Kanto earthquake. I’m writing a historical novel, primarily set off the northwest coast of Hokkaido, though one of the characters also tells the story of the Kanto Earthquake. I hope you will forgive my question, but could you could recommend any English translations of first-hand accounts of the event? As an example of my current question marks, some references talk about a typhoon hitting Tokyo just after the quake, but I can’t see how that could be if the fires lasted three days. If you have any suggestions, and the time to offer them, I would be very grateful indeed.
    Many thanks, and
    Kind regards,
    Ben Marshall

    1. Hi, Ben. Thanks for reading. I haven’t done a ton of research on the Kanto Earthquake (this essay is based mostly on oral history), and I’m afraid I can’t think off-hand of any first-hand accounts translated into English from Japanese. I did read a terrific account once of a middle-aged American woman who was in Yokohama when the earthquake struck. In her struggle to survive the quake and the fires that followed, she was initially helped by a young Korean man who was stronger than she was, but as paranoia set in & Koreans began to be attacked, she ended up protecting him. I can’t now find my notes on it or a library reference, but it’s well worth finding & reading. I don’t remember ever seeing anything about a typhoon striking around the same time, but again, my research hasn’t been very extensive. Good luck on your project!


      1. Many thanks, Naomi.
        That’s a delightful story about the American woman and the Korean. Having read some more on the Great Kanto Earthquake, it is clearly a moment of hell on Earth in our history, in more ways than one. I had just about given up on Googling for more information, but way down in the page ranking, I stumbled on Having just left my cheeky request for advice with you, I had to laugh that here was an entire site – a good one btw – devoted to the topic.
        I will now return to my project, and see how the Kanto quake changes my protagonist’s father forever.
        Again, many thanks and kind regards,

  7. Hello Ben, My name is Arthur Murata and I am in the process of writing a novelization of my father’s experience as a 13 yr old during the 1923 Kanto earthquake. I have over 3 binders full of articles and photos and so far 6 books about the earthquake. There are lots of stories. There is one about a 6 ft tall Englishwoman who was taking a bath on the 2nd floor of the Grand Hotel when the building collapsed around her but the plumbing lowered her to the middle of the street still with a tub full of water. Good luck on your book and research. I can be contacted at

    1. Hello Arthur – thank you so much for getting in contact. I’ve just finished the section of my novel that deals with one of my character’s first-person account of the event. Though my research in no way comes close to matching yours, everything I read about the Kanto quake, and the subsequent events, fills me with horror and awe. Your novelisation has rich and fertile soil for storytelling, and I wish you every success.
      Kind regards,

  8. Dear Naomi, is your family related to Kawabata, Yasunari? He won a Nobel Prize in Literature, I beleive the first Japanese to do so. When he came to San Francisco I saw him deliver a lecture. My aunt (Koho Yamamoto) is a well known Sumie artist in New York City did the artwork for the U.S. editions of his protege Mishima Yukio, he was the one that tried to take over the Japanese government and occupied the Diet building in Tokyo. When other nationalists did not rally to his side he commited ritual seppku and then had his number 2 slice off his head. All families have interesting side stories.
    Warm regards, Arthur

    1. Hi, Arthur. My undergrad major was in East Asian Studies with a focus on Japanese lit, so yes, quite familiar with both Kawabata & Mishima –both incredible writers. I don’t believe there’s any relation between my family & Kawabata Yasunari, unfortunately. How cool that you got to see him deliver a lecture. That would have been a very long time ago!

      1. Hi Naomi, Yes it was a long time ago. I am 67 but people tell me I look younger. I know I have a lot of young friends and so that keeps my outlook young. Except for my body starting to break down my mind is still quite sharp, In think. Just last week I got the results of theWechsler Abrreviated Test of Intelligence and and scored in the Very Superior range. My wife is much smarter than I am, her score on a Stanford-Benet test taken many years ago was 190 and that just blows me out of the water! I have started a correspondence with Ben Marshall from your blog and we will be exchanging information. Thank you very much for that. Bye, Arthur

  9. Dear Naomi, While looking at your web page I saw where you won the Pushcart Prize in 2009 for “Rickshaw Runner”. The title intrigued me because in my narrative about my father I have him come across an abandoned rickshaw which he puts to good use. I was unable to access your story so I could read it. I know nothing about the rickshaw people so I was wondering if your story might enlighten me about them. I know the basics from Wikipedia, but have no real insights about their lives. I hope you can help.
    Thanks, Arthur

    1. Hi again, Arthur. “Rickshaw Runner” was first published in The Southern Review in 2007, but is easier to find in the Pushcart Prize anthology from Pushcart XXXIII (the 2009 anthology). Pushcarts are often available in public libraries. The story is actually about Charlie Chaplin & his Japanese chauffeur & only tangentially related to rickshaws or their runners. I did do a little research about rickshaws, but it was a long time ago. Check out the story & see if any of the details are useful to you!

  10. Hi Naomi, I thought you might like this article I found online about Tanizaki, Junichiro. Also I think I forgot to mention in my last e-mail that my aunt Yamamoto, Koho did the cover art for the US editions for Mishima, Yukio’s books. I am also making good progress on my father’s experience during the Kanto quake. Take care, Arthur

    Phyllis I. Lyons

    Delivered to
    The Chicago Literary Club
    January 7, 2002
    On September 1, 1923, just seconds before 11:58 in the morning, the first shocks of what became known as the Great Kanto Earthquake (in Japanese, Kanto daishinsai) began to be felt in the southern part of the eastern plain of Japan encompassing the cities of Tokyo, Kawasaki, and Yokohama and the surrounding region…..

    Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, later canonized as one of the grandest old men of Japanese letters of the twentieth century, was caught up in the disaster…. [To read the rest of this essay, please check it out at:

    1. Hi Naomi and thank you very much, Arthur.

      I’ve written the first draft of my YA novel, The Lighthouse, in which one of the characters relates his experience in the Kanto quake and how it affected him. My editor is currently about to deliver judgement from on high about what I need to do to make it better. This wonderful essay is a much appreciated addition to my research, and I will no doubt steal aspects of it to give depth to my second draft.
      Many thanks.
      Kind regards,

    2. Thanks so much, Arthur, for keeping the discussion going on this page & for posting this remarkable essay about two endlessly fascinating topics: the Kanto earthquake & Tanizaki. I did take the liberty of truncating it & posting a link to its original online appearance. I like to be very careful about including text for which I don’t have either the copyright or the creator or publisher’s permission to use. Thanks again!

  11. 【It is true that there were Koreans killed by Japanese mobs in the earthquake,but the number “6000” is overly exaggerated.
    Moreover,although most of Koreans killed by Japanese mobs were innocent refugees,some of them were real criminals and terrorists.
    Actually many more Japanese are considered to be killed by koreans during the chaos in the disaster by Korean terrorism.See the propaganda campaign】

    1. I’m frankly surprised that it’s taken this long for an apologist of sanitized Japanese history to show up here. How ironic that I should be talking about this on the 94th anniversary of the Kanto Earthquake.

      The site from which you quote & to which you link cites only the official court records for the very low number of 233 Korean deaths at the hands of Japanese after the earthquake. Forgive me for being skeptical of numbers published by a government that had every reason to underestimate the number of fatalities and conceal their own complicity in the atrocities.

      I’ve read quite a bit (in English, admittedly) about this event, and I found the 6000 figure in a number of historical sources. I am not a historian, of course, nor even an amateur expert on this subject. And I don’t have the time to go back through my research right now to share the scholarly sources I used. But just as a “for instance” from a fact-checked publication, the 6000 figure appears in this Japan Times article about the massacre (and how it’s presented in Japanese textbooks — another fraught subject). The Wikipedia article about the earthquake mentions the “official” count but also cites a number of sources that estimate the count to be much, much higher.

      At any rate, I certainly know better than to argue with someone about historical facts by citing a dodgy, poorly written web page that is so obviously propagandistic in its aims & tone.

      Look, I’m part-Japanese & have no desire to make Japan or the Japanese look bad. But there’s a LOT of evidence that this shit happened. You’re talking to an American who’s watching her country convulse under a wave of racial violence that relies very heavily on the willful ignorance & erasure of well-documented history. You’ll find no sympathy for your point of view here.

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